Monday, March 24, 2008

Lu Xun Question: Is the madman really insane? Is he perhaps saner than those around him? What is sanity? What is madness? Who decides?

The title of this piece, Diary of a Madman, would have us believe that the narrator was indeed a madman. On the surface of the excerpt, one would certainly take the title to heart. The narrator talks of cannibalism, his elder brother eating his younger sister, and people eating other people for the sake of tradition. However, when taking a deeper look into the diary the question of insanity becomes much more difficult to answer. For instance, we must remember that the writer, Lu Xun, was a political activist who was pushing for change in Chinese culture. I think that Xun used such an extravagantly grotesque example of conformity to old Chinese cultures to send a message that change is needed. Cultural traditions are not necessarily bad, but they can turn into a tool for brainwashing, which is what Xun appears to be trying to point out. In section twelve, Xun talks of how he believes that his brother ate his younger sister, and that his mother knew about it, but accepted it because cannibalism was a part of Chinese culture. He then proceeds to say this,
“Who’s to say I didn’t eat a few pieces of my younger sister’s flesh without knowing it? And now it’s my turn…Although I wasn’t aware of it in the beginning, now that I know I’m someone with four thousand years’ experience of cannibalism behind me, how hard it is to look real human beings in the eye”
This quote is Xun’s entire argument. He is saying that if nobody changes the current traditions or cultural lifestyles, then everybody will continue to be engulfed in them, no matter if you realize or not. Xun recognizes that he is a product of his environment, and even though he does not conform to the traditions he is still associated with them. Therefore, in answering the question as to whether the narrator is really a madman, I would say, “No.” In fact, he is much saner than those around him because he has not been brainwashed into thinking that you should carry on a tradition “just because it’s always been that way.” Perhaps he is the only sane one, which leads to the second half of the question.

In this diary excerpt, sanity and madness are defined by the people of the village who are conforming to old tradition just because those traditions have been going on forever. Your country’s history is important, however, living in the past and rejecting change is ridiculous. The people described in this piece are cannibals because Chinese people were supposedly cannibals for thousands of years before them. The question of insanity and madness lies in the fact that these people cannot differentiate between positive traditions and inhumane, primitive, cult-like actions that deteriorate society. The inability to make one’s own decisions and allow oneself to be brainwashed by tradition is insane.
Finally, we must consider who decides what is to be labeled insane or mad. This is a difficult question. In the Diary of a Madman, we saw the cannibals label the narrator a madman for exposing them as cannibals. In that situation, we would consider the cannibals the ultimate deciders, which is not far from the truth. Groups of people have the power to develop and perpetuate their own beliefs. Though the belief in cannibalism is the popular belief in our reading, a belief does not have to be a bad thing. For example, a group could be spreading the belief in equality or world peace. If the equality believers and peace spreaders were the majority then they would also be the decision makers. We would consider their decision to be rational and for the betterment of people in general, so having them as the ultimate deciders would be beneficial. However, if the people spreading the belief are furthering hate, violence, or in this case cannibalism, then there is a big problem because they could become the deciders. Once a group like that is the majority society worsens with people becoming brainwashed for false and inhumane causes. Therefore, those who are the majority are labeled the “deciders” and have a significant influence on society, whether good or bad.

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